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AUGUST 4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Oka Budhi.
Wahid's daughter Yenny tries to rouse the president, who shows his regard for parliamentarians by dozing off during the interpellation session

Defiant Under Fire
By remaining unapologetic and unyielding in the run-up to the MPR session, Wahid might be becoming his own worst enemy
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta

ALSO:
Behind the Power: Vice President Megawati is the deciding factor in the viability of Gus Dur's administration


There can often be more than one Abdurrahman Wahid. There is Wahid the brave idealist, whose belief in political reconciliation rivals his convictions on religious freedom. There is Wahid the cunning strategist, for whom there is no difference between allies and rivals. And then there is Wahid the spoiled autocrat, who harbors an intense dislike for criticism of his actions or choices. As of late, the last Wahid has been making many appearances. On July 20, when he delivered his response to an official summons by parliament, there was no doubt which Wahid was in attendance.

The president had been called to explain his sacking last April of two ministers from the largest parties in parliament, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the former ruling party Golkar. Facing a sea of stern faces, Golkar leader and parliamentary speaker Akbar Tanjung said: "We are demanding that the president answer the question posed by 250 of our members: Why were these two ministers sacked?"

Wahid responded by arguing that the parliament's right to question him was a privilege granted by a 1999 law and not a constitutionally mandated prerogative. He was therefore under no obligation to reply. As for the allegations of corruption he had made against the two ministers in a closed-door meeting with legislators on April 27, Wahid implied that it was the parliamentarians' fault for leaking them.

In short, not only did Wahid refuse to respond to the legislature's questions, he rejected its authority to demand from him any answers. "The president is not accountable to parliament," said his state secretary Djohan Effendi in a prepared speech. "The firing was a political decision in accordance with the presidential prerogative." Wahid did have a point: The country's founding document gives Indonesia's executive sweeping powers. The question is whether, for Wahid, it was the best place — or time — to raise it.

For on Aug. 7, less than three weeks after the interpellation session, the president faces the same 500 parliamentarians. But this time, they will form part of the 695-member People's Consultative Assembly, or MPR, which elected Wahid to a five-year term last October. Wahid is to deliver an accounting of how well he has carried out the MPR's "Broad Outline of National Direction," its guidelines for state policy, over the past nine months. Should he be found to have failed, or to have violated laws or the Constitution, the MPR could have grounds to impeach him.

Wahid's high-handed attitude on July 20 did not make legislators more likely to treat him charitably during the MPR session, which will last until Aug. 18. "Just an apology would have been enough to get Gus Dur to 2004," said Eki Syachrudin, a Golkar MP as well as an MPR member. The president did say sorry in a letter to parliament delivered two days later. But it was for the regrettable consequences of the sackings, not for his obdurate stance. "Of course we are not satisfied," says Golkar legislator Ade Komaruddin, who had led the motion to question the president.

On paper, the president appears extremely vulnerable in the MPR session. He will find no sympathy from assembly chairman Amien Rais, leader of a loose Islam-linked coalition called the Center Axis. Nor will parliament leader Tanjung prove friendlier: He has already attacked the president for his "inconsistency." Even Wahid's firm ally, Vice President and PDI-P chief Megawati Sukarnoputri, is putting some distance, recently turning down his request that she read out his July 20 statement (see story page 34). In the possibility that his record comes to a vote, Wahid can rely on solid support only from his own National Awakening Party, which makes up little more than 8% of the assembly.

Attempts so far to forge a compromise have come to naught, leaving the upcoming session disturbingly unsettled. On July 1, prominent Indonesian figures such as respected scholar Nurcholish Madjid met with Wahid in Bali to deliver gentle suggestions on how he should change his style of government. Wahid instead used the occasion to lash out at parliamentarians, labeling them "trouble-makers." A meeting that he was supposed to hold with Megawati, Rais and Tanjung fell through. Wahid's attitude: no problem. The one thing all the parties seem to agree on is to refrain from mobilizing their supporters on the streets around the MPR session.

Yet the president's position is more secure than his frictions with other leaders indicate. For one thing, Indonesians have yet to find a replacement for Wahid. Although Tanjung has largely united Golkar behind him, memories of its past abuses and corruption as ex-president Suharto's political vehicle have not receded enough to make the party palatable. Megawati still has to persuade the public as well as the other parties that she can be a more capable and accommodative leader. Rais's stance often weaves back and forth between the center and the Islamic extreme. "[The MPR has] no alternative," says Indonesian political analyst Soedjati Djiwandono. "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is still king."

Even parliamentarians concede that the procedure for impeaching Wahid is not as simple as converting this MPR session into a special one to remove the president. "The process takes quite long," says PDI-P MP Heri Ahmadi. First, the parliament must issue a memorandum of warning to the president about his perceived transgressions. Then the president gets three months to improve his record, after which the parliament again sits in judgment. If the chief executive is found lacking, he gets another month to prove himself. Only after the last trial can the legislature demand a special session.

In other words, like it or not, the MPR is stuck with the president. But if parliamentarians cannot oust him yet, they will still try to erode his credibility and authority. On July 12, some MPs submitted a motion to launch an inquiry into the $4-million "Bulogate" scandal surrounding the misuse of state food monopoly funds by Wahid's masseur, as well as the president's unreported receipt of $2 million from the sultan of Brunei, purportedly for the separatist province of Aceh. During the MPR session, the parties are also likely to probe Wahid's weaknesses, especially his handling of the ongoing religious violence in the Maluku islands and the vulnerability of the economy and the currency.

The legislature's disgust with the president may also translate into renewed support for constitutional amendments — which are up for discussion during the session — especially those concerning limiting the powers of the president. "When there is constitutional wrangling, the result is a stalemate," says Djiwandono. "Who is likely to win? The president, because he has the power."

Indeed, much of the current political impasse can be blamed not just on competing interests but on a flawed system in which the relationship between president, the parliament and the MPR has yet to be delineated. There are some who argue that this crisis may ultimately build more balance into government. But if Indonesia's current turmoil is part of its passage towards democracy, then the progress is a perilous one indeed.

With reporting by Dewi Loveard/Jakarta

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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